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Commissioner announces Toronto plan for Bills

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The NFL map will include Canada now that the Buffalo Bills will play an annual regular-season game in Toronto starting this year.

Citing the "tremendous amount of interest" the Bills generate across neighboring southern Ontario, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Friday that the team will play a regular-season game in Toronto in each of the next five seasons.

The plan also includes three Bills preseason games -- one every other year starting this season -- in Toronto during that stretch.

The NFL has played games outside the United States, most recently when Miami faced the New York Giants in London in October. But the Bills will be the league's first team to do it annually.

In his pre-Super Bowl address to reporters, Goodell said the Bills' plan, first presented to league owners in October, "was done thoughtfully to help regionalize the team even more broadly.

"I think this will be great for all fans because I think it will give the opportunity for the people of Toronto to have a game in their market and it will also give Buffalo Bills fans a chance to go to that game," he said in Phoenix.

Goodell didn't say when this year's game will be played, which team the Bills will play or how tickets will be distributed. The NFL schedule isn't due out until April, but it's expected the game will be played in December to avoid conflict with the CFL season, which concludes with the Grey Cup championship in late November.

Toronto's FAN 590 radio station has reported that Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats season-ticket holders will have the first opportunity to buy tickets, followed by Bills season-ticket holders. The station also reported that the average ticket price for games will be $250, and buyers would have to buy tickets for all eight games to be played in Toronto through 2012.

That's a significant increase over ticket prices at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which average about $46 each.

A press conference has been tentatively scheduled to take place in Toronto next week.

The games would be played at the downtown Rogers Centre, a domed stadium with a retractable roof that's home to the Argonauts and baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

The Bills' bid is their most ambitious attempt to secure the small-market franchise's long-term future in Buffalo by tapping into Toronto's vast corporate base. Toronto is Canada's financial capital and largest city, with a population of about 4.6 million and located a 90-minute drive from Buffalo.

The Bills, who count Toronto as part of their territory, attract an average of 15,000 Canadian fans to their home games, but have had little success establishing marketing deals and selling luxury suites to companies north of the border.

The Bills have maintained this is an extension of their bid to regionalize their base.

But fears have been raised that these games mark the first step toward permanent relocation, especially once team owner Ralph Wilson dies.

The 89-year-old Wilson doesn't intend to sell or relocate the Bills while he's alive, but does plan to have the team sold to the highest bidder after his death.

Ted Rogers, who owns the Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre, has teamed with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum to lead a group seeking to bring NFL football to Canada.

In November, Rogers questioned Buffalo's long-term ability to support an NFL franchise, while backing the Bills' bid to play limited games in Toronto.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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